a. An evergreen shrub or small tree (Camellia sinensis) native to Asia, having fragrant, nodding, cup-shaped white flowers and glossy leaves.
b. The young, dried leaves of this plant, prepared by various processes and used to make a beverage, usually served hot.
2. An aromatic, slightly bitter beverage made by steeping tea leaves in boiling water.
3. Any of various plants, such as New Jersey tea, having leaves that are or were formerly used to make a tealike beverage.
4. Any of various beverages made by steeping the leaves, flowers, fruits, or other parts of certain plants: herbal tea; peppermint tea.
5. Any of various beverages made by extracting an infusion from meat, especially beef.
6. A tea rose.
7. Chiefly British
a. An afternoon refreshment consisting usually of sandwiches and cakes served with tea.
b. High tea.
8. An afternoon reception or social gathering at which tea is served.
9. Slang Marijuana.
[Probably Dutch thee, from Malay teh, from Amoy te (equivalent to Mandarin chá), from dialectal Early Middle Chinese da; akin to Middle Chinese drεː (source of Mandarin chá, tea); see CHANOYU.]
Word History: "Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey, / Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea." When Alexander Pope wrote these lines from The Rape of the Lock in 1714, tea still rhymed with obey. This was true of many words spelled with ea, and it was just about in Pope's time that nearly all these words started changing their pronunciation from (ā) to (ē), as in our modern pronunciation of tea (tē). Most modern English words whose main vowel sound is spelled -ea- were pronounced with long vowels in Middle and Old English. Many of these vowels were shortened in the 1500s and 1600s to their modern pronunciations, as in our words dead and sweat. But those words that were pronounced with an (ā) sound in Middle English did not undergo this sound change and kept their long vowels, undergoing the further change in Pope's time to the modern "long e" sound. There were several exceptions to this last sound change, most notably the words break, great, and steak. Interestingly, the old pronunciation is also retained in Irish family names, such as Reagan, Shea, Beatty, and Yeats (in contrast to British family names such as Keats).
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.